Mind Games: Early black players had tough time

2013-10-21 10:00

One of the most remarkable stories in my 40-plus years of sports writing involves a man called Solomon Mhlaba and the “dorpie” of Hanover in the Karoo.

His was a long journey, both symbolic and physical, that stirs up uncomfortable memories of desolation, poverty and coming face to face with the awful reality of a simple man, possessed of exceptional sporting talent, caught on the wrong side of the apartheid line.

Mhlaba was a rugby player – a tall and fast fullback who made scything runs through defences and who had those natural ball skills that instantly set aside the truly gifted.

I met him and saw him play when he was picked for the SA Barbarians’ tour to the UK in 1979.

Led by businessman Chick Henderson, in those days a great figure in Transvaal rugby circles who had won nine Scotland caps while studying at Oxford and a founding member of the local Barbarians club, the tour was organised in an effort to circumvent anti-apartheid boycotts.

The British Lions were due to tour South Africa in 1980, and Dr Danie Craven and Henderson came up with the idea of compiling a team made up of eight white, eight coloured and eight black players, representing respectively the SA Rugby Board (Sarb), the SA Rugby Federation and the SA Rugby Association (Sara), to take the pressure off the four home unions by demonstrating Sarb’s willingness to “integrate”.

The “Baa Baas” thus became the first multiracial team to tour under the auspices of the Sarb, and Henderson, coach Dougie Dyers, assistant manager Alfred Dwesi and the players themselves made a big effort to break down racial barriers.

The process was fascinating to watch. As they faced difficult matches and strong opponents, the players discovered common cause and began to bond.

But the team was strongly condemned as window-dressing by the anti-apartheid movementand South African bodies such as the South African Rugby Union (Saru).

Mhlaba made a big impact from the first game against Devon in Exeter –the kind of impression that today would have attracted many offers of professional contracts.

A number of the other Baa Baas, notably Rob Louw, Divan Serfontein and Errol Tobias, given that they had not been part of Springbok trials, also returned home with their reputations much enhanced.

Back in South Africa, I drove to do a feature on Mhlaba at his home in Hanover, pretty much the midpoint between Joburg and Cape Town.

The contrast between his tiny house in the “location” and the windblown, litter-strewn, uneven piece of hardpan with its rickety poles, and the veritable palaces in the UK from which he had just returned, was disturbing.

He told of catching the train from Hanover to Noupoort and then to Port Elizabeth to play his matches for Sara’s Leopards (a journey of a day and a night) and that he had been given a raise in salary by the company he worked for.

But in the town, when we went to buy a cool drink, I was sickened when I realised he was hovering on the pavement because the inside of the shop was a “net blankes” preserve and blacks were meant to make their purchases at a window around the side.

Tidings of the death of Morgan Cushe, another of Henderson’s Barbarians, brought back memories of that time.

Cushe, a brave and determined flanker who played against the 1974 Lions and the 1976 All Blacks, exuded a quiet dignity as he coached youngsters in the Uitenhage area.

But the last time I saw him, ahead of the British Lions tour in 2009, he was downhearted because he had been summarily pushed out of his job with the EP Rugby Union.

Cushe claimed he had been the victim of old scores being settled (between Saru and Sara factions) but I was never able to check on that.

I trust his despair was not the cause of his death – and I am ashamed to say I do not know what became of Mhlaba.

I do know they played a part in getting rugby to where it is today.

They may have been decried as sell-outs by some, but they were just rugby players, trying to do something with their talent – I believe their role was not in vain.

» dan.retief@citypress.co.za

» Talk to us: Were the sacrifices made by the first black rugby players all in vain?

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